Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a famous theologian recognized as a holy man by all faiths, who marched to Selma at the front of the line next to Reverend King, who was an important piece of the Selma story, was omitted from the Selma movie.
At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The Exodus began, but is far from having been completed.
These were the words with which Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) opened his address at the 1963 National Conference on Race and Religion, in Chicago (“The Insecurity of Freedom,” p. 85).
It was at that same conference that Rabbi Heschel first met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the keynote speaker at this national gathering. The two became friends and allies working together for equality and justice, until Reverend King was murdered in 1968.
Describing Heschel as “one of the great men of our age, a truly great prophet”, Martin Luther King declared: “He has been with us in many struggles. I remember marching from Selma to Montgomery, how he stood at my side…I remember very well when we were in Chicago for the Conference on Religion and Race…to a great extent his speech inspired clergymen of all faiths to do something they had not done before.”
Reverend King knew that the only way his dream would ever be realized is to invite people of all colors and beliefs to join him.
Heschel’s daughter, herself a scholar of Judaism, commented on the omission
The religious inspiration that led us to Selma continues, and the photograph of my father marching in the front row there — with King, Ralph Bunche, John Lewis, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Rev. C.T. Vivian — has become iconic. What a pity that my father’s presence is not included in “Selma.” More than a historical error, the film erases one of the central accomplishments of the civil rights movement, its inclusiveness, and one of King’s great joys: his close friendship with my father. The photograph reminds us that religious coalitions can transcend and overcome political conflicts, and it also reminds us that our Jewish prophetic tradition came alive in the civil rights movement. Judaism seemed to be at the very heart of being American.
Heschel, a Polish immigrant, scion of a long line of Chasidic rabbis, Professor of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and King, an American descendant of slaves, a compassionate protector of the oppressed, charismatic orator, writer and theologian, marched side-by- side from Selma to Montgomery to protest the pernicious racism that poisoned America and humiliated its African-American citizens. A host of white citizens, filled with venomous hate, surrounded the marchers, jeered and spat upon them. But as Heschel declared later: “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.” It is important not only to protest against evil but to be seen protesting. Faith in the goodness and oneness of God is powerfully expressed through the language of feet, hands, and spine.
After the assassination of King, Heschel said of him “Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us…his mission is sacred…I call upon every Jew to hearken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow in his way. The whole future of America will depend upon the influence of Dr. King.”
Rabbi Heschel was a friend of Dr. King’s who marched along side of him during his holy mission, its a shame that the writers of the film Selma chose to forget Rabbi Heschel’s contribution to King’s mission.
As an American and a Jew Rabbi Heschel’s participation in the Civil Rights movement is a source of pride. And his omission from the movie is not only a historical inaccuracy but also a slap across the face of the Jewish community of the United States.